For decades, road infrastructure has been woefully underfunded. According to the American Society of Civil (ASCE) Engineers, over 40% of our nation’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Bad roads not only impact safety, but they cause damage to vehicles and our environment.
If the nearly $2 trillion plan recently proposed by President Joe Biden is approved, it would impact hundreds of thousands of our roads and bridges, which are critical to support the productivity and success of our country. Rather than using the funds to simply fix the infrastructure using our traditional methods and processes, the funds can also be used to help support innovation with the power of machine learning and with the latest widely available technologies.
Currently, roads are typically evaluated every one to seven years to assess the conditions of the pavement, the visibility of paint lines and the quality of the materials involved. However, with rising temperatures and increasing extremes in weather conditions, our roads are deteriorating faster than ever. ASCE estimates that the rise in temperature will add another $19 billion in pavement costs by 2040.
We are also seeing more vehicles on the road each year and, as a result, a rise in accidents and deaths. With the increased wear and tear on roadways, more frequent evaluations of road conditions are necessary. However, sending out trucks and putting boots on the street to conduct the evaluation is not only resource-intensive and expensive, but it can also be dangerous.
New technologies are solving some of the traditional problems we have seen in roadway maintenance. There are new sensor technologies and machine learning models available to our transportation departments that can easily and more quickly identify road issues and pinpoint what specifically needs to be addressed. Technology can also collect important data and crowdsourced images to provide analyses on the degradation of materials over time.
Technology in cars is advancing at a rapid pace. Backup cameras, sensors, Wi-Fi-enablement and autonomous driving are not in our future cars but in currently sold vehicle fleets. These vehicles not only have a wide range of improved safety features, but they are also more climate-friendly by way of mileage efficiency or with electricity-powered engines. As exciting as the future of vehicle technology is, we need to see the same pace of innovation in the roads that these cars drive on.
The benefit of investing in our infrastructure is clear, but let’s ensure that the spending is used to prepare our roads for the future. We need to invest in the infrastructure our country needs to support subsequent generations. As we work to build smart cities across the nation — cities that are designed to be more resource-efficient, improve operations and make transportation safer — we must ensure the backbones of our cities, our roadways, are strong enough to support our communities.
Here are some ways departments of transportation, cities and counties can prepare for the future of our roads:
• Take advantage of the technology readily available today, such as sensors, connected vehicles and machine learning, to gather data and analyze how to make transportation more efficient and safe.
• Building new or improving infrastructure may not always be an option. However, there are efficiencies that you can build with road signs, ramp metering and signals to increase traffic flow and throughput. Innovating with the infrastructure you have is always a great option to consider.
• Share your best practices! Not all departments want to be first in trying something new, but if you did and it was or wasn’t successful, share what you learned with the rest of the transportation community.
Using investment and resources wisely will be key in ensuring that road infrastructure is prepared for the future of our communities.
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